NEW YORK • He left his editors alone to do their work, but was not afraid to wield the axe - sometimes dropping the bombshell via another media outlet.
Mr S.I. Newhouse Jr, who, as the owner of The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and other magazines, wielded vast influence over American culture, fashion and social taste, died on Sunday at the age of 89 in his home in Manhattan. He is survived by his wife and three children.
Mr Newhouse and his younger brother inherited a publishing empire from their father. They built it into one of the largest privately held fortunes in the United States, with estimates of the family wealth at more than US$12 billion at the turn of the 21st century.
While his brother led the more profitable newspaper and cable television operations, he took charge of the glamorous magazine division, Conde Nast.
Though he was shy and often painfully awkward in public, he hired some of the most charismatic magazine editors of the late 20th century - Ms Tina Brown and Mr Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair and Ms Diana Vreeland and Ms Anna Wintour at Vogue.
He rewarded them with salaries, expense accounts, clothing allowances and housing loans that were the envy of their peers.
"I am not an editor," Mr Newhouse told The New York Times in 1989. "I flounder when people ask me, 'What would you do?'"
His philosophy was to let his editors run free. But when he deemed a magazine's direction "screwy", he did not hesitate to fire editors, sometimes so maladroitly that they found out about their dismissals on television or in the gossip columns.
Mr Newhouse's magazines were criticised for exalting the rich and famous through articles that gave their personal foibles and professional exploits equal importance.
But as circulation and advertising revenues soared, other publishers took the same approach.
His magazines came to stand for a golden era of publishing and became an integral part of the culture they were covering. "With (his) passing, the big chapters in the history of magazines - as written by men like (him) and Henry Luce (behind titles like Time, Life and Fortune) - will have come to an end," said Mr Carter, who announced last month that he would leave Vanity Fair in December after 25 years.
Two Hollywood films, The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and How To Lose Friends And Alienate People (2008), were based on accounts of life at Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Mr Newhouse was a workaholic who arrived at his Midtown Manhattan office before dawn and sometimes convened staff meetings at 6am. He claimed to read all his magazines - more than 15 - from cover to cover.
While job stability was not a hallmark at Newhouse publications, his employees could count on perks that were unusual in the industry.
Even junior editorial assistants had catered lunches and use of a car service. Senior editors received first-class airfares, virtually unlimited entertainment expenses and million-dollar loans at subsidised interest rates to buy homes.
But Mr Newhouse's largesse eventually created a river of red ink. According to The Wall Street Journal in 1996, Conde Nast lost up to US$20 million in 1994 as nine of its 14 publications ran deficits.
Unprofitable magazines such as Mademoiselle and Gourmet were shut down. Random House was sold to Bertelsmann, the German publishing giant, for US$1.4 billion in 1998, two decades after he had paid US$60 million for it.
He began to step back from the business in the late 2000s, around the time that publishing, buffeted by a global recession and the spread of the Web, was becoming a very different proposition.
But until recently, he could still be seen having lunch in the company cafeteria .
New Yorker editor David Remnick said Mr Newhouse gave him the freedom to do his work as he saw fit.
During lunches, he said: "We barely discussed the magazine. We talked about politics. We talked about art. We talked about business."